The time of a new Android operating system is now upon us, with the venerable Android 8 (aka Oreo) setting in the west and the sparkling, new Android 9 (aka Pie) rising in the east. This latest iteration of the world’s most popular mobile operating system tackles screen addiction and reimagines how we interact with Android with new gestures. It also refreshes the look and
A Peek Behind the Curtain
The full name of Android 9.0 was revealed on August 6, ignoring Persimmon and Popsicle and going with the gooey and delicious Pie. Keep in mind that, depending on your device, you may not receive Android Pie on its release—or at all. Google’s Pixel devices are the first in line, with a handful of partners lined up for early rollout. It’s sobering to see Google’s own statistics on OS adoption, which reflect the fact that, despite enormous strides with the operating system, getting the upgrade to users is still a challenge. As of May of 2018, only 5.7 percent of Android users were on the latest version of the OS, Oreo.
As mentioned above, this story is based on the last developer preview to come out before the official release of Android Pie. The experience was very close to the final release, and using the developer preview afforded me the time to experiment and live with the new OS. Not all features were live in the preview, however, including the Digital Wellbeing features—Google’s name for its screen-addiction tools. In fact, the Digital Wellbeing features aren’t even launching until the fall. Slices, a feature that embeds app capabilities into Google search results, also won’t be available until the fall. I also couldn’t test new battery-life, brightness-control, and app-actions features, all of which are AI-powered tools that adapt the OS based on your usage.
I’ll be updating this
Apples and Androids
Reviewing operating systems can sometimes feel like trying to write a review about the sky or the ocean. They are so large, encompassing so many features, that even trying to sum them up is a daunting experience. In the case of mobile operating systems, it’s even stranger, since consumers don’t really have a choice. You either buy an iPhone with iOS or another phone with Android. You can’t run iOS on a Samsung phone.
While it’s easy to say that Apple is the closed-and-pretty-one and Android is the open one, that’s also enormously reductive. Both Google and Apple are designing for human users and, as such, use a lot of the same tools and tactics in their mobile operating systems. In fact, if you read the comments of any review of either OS, you’ll find fans pointing out the extent to which each “copies” from the other. Still, I find it useful to compare the two
The Look of Android
For years, I felt like little thought was given to the actual look of the Android OS. I presumed this was because Google felt like it was making the foundation that OEMs and others would build upon. That seemed to change with the last round of Nexus devices, which felt decidedly more unique and more consumer-focused. The Pixel devices (and the Pixel Launcher) cemented this idea: there’s now a unique look to Android. The latest twist in this tale of aesthetics is that Google is pushing out a unified look to more and more of its properties, including Android.
The bigger, more rounded look spotted on Gmail and Google Drive is seeping into Android. The Notifications pull-down pane has distinct, white cards with rounded corners that feel much more substantial than the previous design. There’s also a setting for a Light or Dark theme in Android now, which recolors these cards as either black or white. You can also opt for Android to choose which theme to use based on your background image.
Some of these new design elements are best seen in the Settings app. The larger
A final thought on aesthetics. Google seems to be consciously shifting attention away from Android and toward Google itself. Case in point: when I reboot my Pixel it doesn’t say Android in bright letters anymore. It says Google with the words “powered by Android” in smaller letters at the bottom. Using Android is now, really, the experience of using Google on your phone.
Screen Addiction Ending Soon
This year has seen mounting concern about screen addiction; the social and health consequences that come from staring at screens all day. At Google I/O, this topic received a lot of time. The company even offered an antidote to Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) with the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO). To that end, Google announced that a series of powerful new Digital Wellbeing tools were coming to Android to give users more insight into how they use their phones and hopefully curb their usage. These are the biggest and most dramatic features of Android Pie and they were
The idea of Google trying to get customers to use their phones less might, at first, seem laughable, or even disingenuous. After all, the company presumably wants people as many people using their apps and services and making Google money as often as possible. But there has been mounting concern that consumers might be fatigued by the modern smartphone experience. Android 7, for example, included fine-grained notification controls because, as a Googler said on stage at that year’s I/O, it’s better for a customer to mute a few notifications than to uninstall an entire app.
At the center of Google’s efforts is the Android Dashboard. When launched, this will show you how often you’re using your apps, among other statistics. A new Shush option will work like Do Not Disturb for notifications, so you can focus or simply check out from disruptions for a little while. An App Timer feature will let you set limits on specific apps, which is also a powerful tool for parents who look to police their children’s app usage.
One feature I’m particularly excited for is Wind Down. Set a time range for when you want to use your phone less, and your device will fade to black and white during that interval. It’s a powerful visual cue, reminding you to take a break. It also guts the strongest and most alluring part of smartphones: the lush colors and dopamine squirt-inducing visuals.
Apple has already shown off its answer to screen addiction in the beta version of iOS 12. It’s hard to compare the two since Google didn’t include its tools in the developer preview, but they’re clearly using similar features to achieve similar goals. These tools are a bit more striking on iPhone if only because there has been no way to get this kind of control over the device before, whereas Android has enjoyed a wide variety of parental control solutions for years. That said, I think the Wind Down feature is far more useful than Apple’s approach, which simply greys out the apps during the periods you select.
The Top of the Screen
App notifications and the Android menu bar are likely the main ways people engage with their devices. Notifications show us what’s happening, and give us the opportunity to take actions. The menu bar has critical device information like battery level and the current time. Android Pie carefully tweaks both of these areas, giving consumers a quality-of-life boost.
Although it is a very small change, Android Pie moves the current time from the far right corner of the screen to the far left. I actually like this move since it helps tidy up the top of the phone, but it’s mostly there because of the notched phone fad that we’re all suffering through. And yes, Android Pie absolutely supports notched devices, but only up to a point.
With Android Pie, notifications will support media, like the images sent as attachments. You’ll also be able to see the avatar of the person messaging you, which makes the notification experience far more complete. Similarly, Android Pie has AI-generated canned responses, like those seen in Gmail. They’re particularly handy for sending quick, rote responses. Google has also said that Android Pie will have better support for group chat notifications.
All of these improvements really bend toward seeing more in
While I’m interested to see the changes coming to notifications in Pie, I am a not convinced the full potential of these changes will actually be realized. The major push in the previous version of Android was reworking notifications to give the user more control over what they see and when. The introduction of notification Channels, intended to let consumers toggle off some kinds of notifications from individual apps was a radical change, but one that, in my experience, hasn’t been widely embraced by developers. I hope that, with the arrival of Pie, more developers will take advantage of these tools to make notifications less of a nuisance.
Highly Appropriate Gestures
The three buttons at the bottom of every Android device haven’t changed much in recent memory. Sometimes they have different symbols, sometimes they are physical instead of just displayed on the glass, but they’re almost as iconic as Apple’s single home button design for the iPhone. And just as Apple did away with the home button with the iPhone X, Android Pie puts a whole new twist on its navigation scheme. Now, there’s just one button and a whole lot of gestures.
In the version of the developer preview I tested, gestures were an option buried in the Settings menu. Otherwise, my Pixel XL defaulted to the same three icons at the bottom of the screen. How it will ship on on the final version isn’t clear to me, although it’s worth noting that Google took time to highlight the new interface during the I/O developer conference, suggesting it’s an important new feature.
Instead of three icons, you now have a single lozenge-shaped button in the center bottom of the screen. Tap it and swipe up all the way, and it will display the full apps tray. This is everything you’ve got installed on your device. It’s not far off from how the Pixel Launcher displays apps now. Tap the center button from anywhere, in any app, and you’ll be taken back to the home screen. So far, so simple.
In the past, the far right button (sometimes shown as a square or a menu icon) opened a view that displayed all the apps currently running on your device. You could flick them away to close the
To open the app tray with the center button, you need to keep your finger on the screen pretty much all the way to the top. It’s not a flick action. But flicking or dragging just partway up the screen does open a new task manager view, typically handled by the far right button. In this view, cards show each app currently running. The icons on top match the icon for each app, and the rest of the card shows what’s currently happening in the app. I am surprised that in at least some cases you can copy and paste from these app previews, but it’s not clear how much action can be taken from this view. The bottom of the screen shows a smaller app tray, showing a set of apps that seem to be derived from how I use my phone. Android Oreo has a similar feature already in the full app tray view that displays frequently used apps.
You can scroll left and right through the app cards, and toss the cards away to shut down the app. Dragging an app to the top of the screen will still start a split screen session, so not much has really changed.
One new trick is when you tap the center button and drag to the left. This opens a fast app-switching screen. It’s a simplified version of the app manager view, minus the app tray at the bottom. Without lifting your thumb, you slide left and right through the apps currently running on your phone. Release your thumb and whatever app is in the center position will move into focus. It’s much faster than opening the old app manager of the half-swipe up gesture, but I really struggled with this one in testing. It’s just too fast.
I’d either let go when I didn’t intend to or swipe all the way to the end of the list and lose it. Google could tweak this particular gesture, but in using it I was reminded of how I learned to drive
The left-hand button traditionally moved you back one screen, and doubled as the back button on some browsers, too. It would be hard to imagine that OS without it, which is why it still pops up from time to time. Every now and again while using the gesture button, a tiny triangle appeared in the lower left, which you can tap and move back. This downgrade makes
My expectations of the Android Pie gestures were way out of line with what I experienced in the developer preview version of the OS. From what I read online, and saw on stage at I/O, I had imagined a totally new way to interact with my phone. It’s not that. It’s a smart redesign, with a few rough edges to work out. I’m curious to see how it performs in the long term, but
Two tweaks in Android Pie both take advantage of your screen’s horizontal space in new and interesting ways: new screen rotation controls and an improved volume bar.
Screen rotation was one of those ooh-ah moments with the iPhone when the OS smoothly moved between landscape and portrait views depending on how you held the device. It’s an essential feature that’s on every kind of modern smartphones, but it’s also deeply annoying. How many of us have been laying in bed, reading our phones, only to have the screen spin around to an inconvenient angle when we make the slightest move? Too many, that’s how many.
Sure, you can toggle screen rotation off in the Settings (or in the menu available in the notification tray) but who has the time to do that? In Android Pie, rotating your phone when an app is open won’t automatically rotate the app. Instead, a little icon (shaped like a phone on mine, but I’ve seen other variants) appears in the bottom right corner. Tap it, and the screen will rotate to match your phone’s position. Otherwise, it stays right where it is.
I saw this feature working beautifully in the Android Chrome browser, but it’s unclear to me if it’s going to be a universal option or app-specific. Regardless, it’s a quality of life tweak that I really appreciate.
Upgrades to the volume slider in Android Pie also fall into the quality of life department. Now, pressing the volume rocker switch on your phone will tick the volume up and down as before. But in Android Pie, the volume menu pops in from the right of your screen and runs down the horizontal axis of your phone. The animation, position, and shape of the volume menu are the same as the
The smartest part, however, is that the volume buttons control media volume by default. If you want to mute your ringer, you tap a button at the top of the volume menu. The logic is simple: most of the time, people want their ringers either on or off, and want to have fine-grained control over their music and media volume. This is miles better than the weird context-specific menu in Oreo, which had the media or ringer controls visible depending on what was happening when you pressed the volume control. The new option is
In the Background and Under the Hood
As with all operating system updates, there’s a lot going on with Pie that might not be immediately obvious to the user. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights as taken from the developer documentation.
In the realm of security, Google has changed the conversation about Android in a big way. Rather than talk about putting out fires, Google wants to challenge ideas of what a phone can be safely used for. It’s a statement of
Android Pie also brings improvements to the Autofill framework, which lets apps fill information directly into apps and websites. If you use a password manager (which you should) the Autofill framework is a game changer that takes the pain out of entering passwords. P promises to make that experience even more seamless.
Fingerprint readers, and other
Google continues to tighten what apps running in the background can do in Android Pie. In addition to the restrictions we saw in previous versions, Pie restricts apps from receiving sensor information when they’re in the background. Best of all, background apps can no longer access the microphone or camera. In my opinion, this is a long time coming but a much welcome improvement.
Android Pie also expands the support for dual-camera devices (that is, smartphones with two cameras facing in the same direction). Features like bokeh, seamless zoom, and stereo vision will now be possible.
Blueberry, Apple, Cherry, Pumpkin, and Plum
My time with the Android Pie developer preview was as surprising as it was satisfying. I’m very impressed with the new gestures, and the tweaks that need to be made seem obvious and easy. I’m also very intrigued by changes to the look and feel of Android going forward, as it becomes more bound to the Google visual experience. That said, I am left wanting as neither the developer preview nor the released version of Pie
The final version of Android 9.0, aka Pie, is making its way to phones as you read this. Perhaps it’s already there, waiting for you to take a slice. We at PCMag, however, will have to wait to make our final